Withings | AFib

About atrial fibrillation: symptoms, causes and diagnosis

Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is the most common form of irregular heart rhythm. This arrhythmia can lead to many complications, such as blood clots or heart failure. 20-30% of all strokes are due to AFib (source)

Learn more about AFib symptoms, risk factors, and how you may be able to better manage this condition via early ECG detection.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an anomaly of the heart’s electrical activity. Normally, the heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat based on electrical impulses to pump blood. These signals starts from the sinus node in the right atrium.

In atrial fibrillation, the electrical impulses are disorganized and scattered throughout both atria.

As a result, the heart beats too quickly and irregularly, and blood is not pumped efficiently, which can lead to a decreased blood flow and oxygen throughout the body.

Heart - Atrial Fibrillation

The different types of AFib episodes

Cardiologists define 3 forms of AFib episodes according to their duration and frequency:


Paroxysmal Afib

In this first and sudden episode, AFib comes and goes, and stops on its own.


Persistent AFib

In the second stage, AFib progresses. It lasts more than a week and can become permanent.


Permanent AFib

Also called long-term persistent AFib, in the third and most severe stage, AFib progresses until the heart’s normal rhythm cannot be restored.

AFib and its symptoms

AFib tends to be asymptomatic. During its paroxysmal early stage, atrial fibrillation is more difficult to detect, because it might arise during short episodes that cannot be diagnosed. However, common symptoms include:

  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Faintness
  • Fatigue or lack of energy

In most cases, people do not experience those symptoms, and AFib may remain untreated. Doctors might discover it when testing for other conditions.

According to the European Society of Cardiology, one in four people who are 40 years old or over are likely to develop AFib.

(source: escardio.org)

What are the risk factors for atrial fibrillation?

Many people develop AFib for unclear reasons. However, it is important to consider the following risk factors:

Advanced age

Atrial fibrillation affects up to two percent of the younger population of the United States, but rises to nine percent for those 65 years or older. (source: Circulation)


According to the European Society of Cardiology, people who already have high blood pressure are at higher risk for AFib.

Valvular heart diseases

Also called VHD, they affect how the heart valve function to regulate blood flow and are independently associated with AFib.

Read more about valvular heart diseases

Thyroid disorder

A dysfunctional thyroid will disturb the production of hormones. This can lead to atrial fibrillation.
(source: Circulation)


Overweight contributes to the onset of atrial fibrillation. The Clinical Electrophysiology Journal states that: "incremental increases in BMI are associated with a significant excess risk of AFib."

Lung disease

Chronic obstrusive pulmonary disease may also be independantly associated with atrial fibrillation.

(source: Int. Journal of Cardiology)

What are the possible complications of AFib?

AFib is associated with a 1.5- to 1.9-fold mortality risk after adjustment for the preexisting cardiovascular conditions with which AF was related.

(source: The Framingham Heart Study, Circulation)


When a heart contraction is either too fast or too uneven, it does not completely squeeze the blood out of the atria, causing blood clots. The blood clot can be pumped out of the heart to the brain and block off the blood supply to an artery in the brain. This is commonly called a stroke.

Heart failure

AFib can cause the heart to beat so fast that it doesn’t fill up with enough blood to pump out to the body.

Cognitive decline

Atrial fibrillation is also associated with cognitive decline. (source: Journal of the American Heart Association)

How to detect AFib

The only way to efficiently diagnose AFib is to record an electrocardiogram (ECG). This painless and non-invasive test can record the electrical activity of your heart.

However, because the early episodes of AFib are temporary, signs of AFib may not be recorded during a doctor’s visit.

Learn more about ECG Recording

How should AFib be treated?

The treatment goals for AFib are to reset the heart’s rhythm and prevent blood clots in order to decrease the risk of strokes.

To control the cardiac rhythm, doctors may use medicines such as blood thinners, administer electric shocks, or proceed to the ablation of the heart tissue causing atrial fibrillation.

Depending on the situation and type of AFib, the cardiologist will define the best strategy to treat atrial fibrillation patients.

However, the longer a patient has AFib, the less likely it is that doctors can restore a normal heart rhythm.

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